Volume XXVIII Number 1
James Meredith, center, is escorted by U.S. marshals and troops on his way to classes at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., on Oct. 2, 1962. Meredith was the first black student to attend the university.
Photo AccuNet/AP Multimedia Archive, Accuweather Inc., http://ap.accuweather.com
The ABCs of Equality
When Alvin Chambliss first went to court in 1974 to seek legal redress for the chronically poor condition of Mississippi’s historically black public colleges, he had no idea the case would consume 31 years, result in a half-billion dollar settlement that he did not want, and leave him headed toward a new career as a professor and administrator in higher education.
Today Chambliss is a visiting professor in the Indiana University School of Education in Bloomington, teaching courses on race and higher education, working on a book about the historic role of IU and on other research projects related to his renowned national legal career.
In the mid-1970s, working as a lawyer in Mississippi, Chambliss filed what became the epic Ayers v. Fordice (originally Ayers v. Walter, now Ayers v. Barbour) case, arguing that black students in the South had been denied equal education due to the impoverishment and limited curricular options at historically black public colleges and universities (HBCUs). Southern states (and a few northern ones) had created these colleges in large part to keep their “flagship” universities all white. In the end, Chambliss and his colleagues won the case, engineering a $500 million cash settlement from the state of Mississippi for the HBCUs and some new case law that could have wide implications in the use of test scores as admissions screening criteria.
“Keep in mind that the University of Mississippi and most of the other state universities (in the South) did not have any admissions standards until James Meredith tried to enroll at Ole Miss in 1961,” Chambliss says. “But they knew that blacks underperformed whites on standardized tests such as the ACT, so to keep Meredith (and other blacks) out, they began to require the ACT and SAT.” He points out that this is a “crucial but basically forgotten” piece of history. In Ayers, the court ruled that the use of a test by itself as an admissions criterion was unconstitutional unless it was combined with other factors such as grade point averages, rank in class, and teacher recommendations.
“That is now the law for the United States of America, not just for Ole Miss,” Chambliss notes. “But most people have just ignored this mandate because it came in a desegregation case. You still have high-stakes entrance testing all over the country, although the Supreme Court has said you really can’t do that.”
In person, Alvin Chambliss is a fiery, visionary presence. His office in the School of Education is small but packed with memorabilia, files, and works in progress. The phone rings frequently—students call, the office administrator inquires about a grade change case, and a scholar who wants to write Chambliss’s biography asks for his time.
“If I answered the phone every time it rang, I wouldn’t do anything else,” Chambliss sighs as he makes an appointment to talk later. He is instantly back to the lessons of Ayers.
“The question on the table is not whether the HBCUs needed a cash settlement,” he explains. “They need to be able to offer programs that will make them more attractive.” Essentially, the Court ruled that black colleges cannot be publicly funded just because they are black, Chambliss says, but “as a mechanism to dismantle what has been a dual (by race) education system. Fund them to make them attractive so that everyone will go!”
The means to achieve that goal are widely disputed, and Chambliss has crossed swords with some former colleagues over what he sees as their emphasis on money. He believes that to truly end discrimination, HBCUs need to add programs such as medical schools, law schools, and other professional degrees, which would attract whites and Latinos. Some HBCUs have done so and now have fully integrated student bodies, he points out. Chambliss cites the examples of Kentucky State University, which has diversified its curriculum and now serves a racially blended populace of traditional-age and working adult students in undergraduate and professional programs. He also mentions Tennessee State University, which has established partnerships with Vanderbilt and other predominately white universities and is moving towards a 50 percent white student body.
The Ayers decision applies to all the southern states plus those northern states that still had segregated systems at the time of Brown v. Board in 1954, including Ohio, where Central State University, the state’s only public black college, closed briefly in the late 1990s but has thrived anew in the 21st century.
“Ohio is concerned that if it expands opportunities at Central State, it may lose its character and heritage,” Chambliss says. In his post-Ayers role as an advisor and consultant to states on implementation of the decision, he recently spoke with the attorney general of Ohio. “I told him that as far as I’m concerned, if you put graduate and professional programs on that campus and that causes you to lose the ‘social mix,’ who cares? The goal is not just to keep a racial balance but to create an opportunity for students on the lower end so that they can come up to par and then move on to the next level. If you provide that access, you are doing your job and what the law asks.”
To Chambliss, the narrow legal context of Ayers and its sister cases is no longer as important as the historical contexts and the future possibilities. “You have to remember that historically black colleges were created in an era when there weren’t even high schools for blacks,” he says. After the Civil War, he notes, white students went to private schools (if they had the means); black students didn’t go to school at all. Poor whites also didn’t attend school, and during reconstruction, public schools were created in the south for essentially the first time.
“Until then, the argument was that blacks did not have the capability to achieve,” Chambliss says. “The HBCUs proved that blacks could achieve, and yet, when I talk today about establishing a medical school or a law school at some place like Central State or Jackson State, people say, ‘well, it will just fail.’ In some ways, things haven’t changed all that much.”
In 2005, Chambliss notes, America has no accredited historically black law or medical schools and very few business schools. “There is no doubt that blacks can achieve,” he says. “We have proven it (in his own family, both his daughters are lawyers), but so many of us are still on the bottom. We are still victims of a historically discriminatory educational system that must be changed.”
For Chambliss, the importance of that change can’t be underestimated. “Democracy presumes that you have a literate, educated population,” he says. “We have to rethink our education system, particularly higher education. That’s the key to improving democracy, and it has become my mission in life.”
Democracy, Chambliss says, is a “combination of elements that all converge in the direction of civility, which is what makes a civilization, and no one in America understood that more than the slaves.” In the pre-Civil War and even pre-Brown days, Chambliss notes, the education of blacks was prohibited in some states. (In Indiana, the state constitution once barred blacks from attending state universities, including IU.) “Why?” he asks. “Because they knew that if blacks could not read and write, they could not be free. If you talk about democracy, yet you have an education that is beyond the reach of an ordinary citizen, what you have is not a real democracy but an illusion. And I’m afraid that’s what there is for most blacks right now.”
Despite his great success as an attorney, his recent award as National Trial Lawyer of the Year, the friendships he has made with Civil Rights greats such as Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King, now is not the time to rest for Chambliss, nor is it the time to file more legal actions. “We have pretty good law on the books now,” he says. “The questions before us today are primarily questions of public policy, and we have got to change the policy to make the education system better.”
That means a second career, begun at IU in 2004, and moving on toward a projected post as an administrator and policymaker at a university. Chambliss envisions his future as a combination of public policy, political involvement, social action, and, when necessary, selective legal challenges. He dreams of a society where blacks are “no longer the doormat population”; where, through a re-energized higher education system, the number of black Ph.D.’s more than triples from today’s paltry 1,500 per year to more than 5,000; where voting rights are available to all adults, including ex-felons; and where upward mobility is a probability, not a distant dream, for most poor and black families.
“These are broad-based agendas,” Chambliss says. “If you focus on core values, you can build coalitions that go beyond Republicans and Democrats, that transcend narrow legal interpretations. The black community is not monolithic, and its past is not its future.”
As he speaks, Chambliss is interrupted by a request for information about an incoming student. He notes that, historically, IU has played a pivotal role in higher education for black students.
“From the late 1930s to the late 1970s, IU graduated more black Ph.D.’s from the South than any other institution," he says. "I love this university for that. There has been a period when we haven’t been as aggressive or as successful as we were in those days of Herman Wells, but I don’t think this institution should abandon its great legacy, nor should we [blacks] abandon this great institution.”
For Chambliss, IU is like the Brooklyn Dodgers, the baseball team that broke the color barrier in the late 1940s. “For that, I will always be a Dodger fan, and whether I am here or not, Indiana will always be one of my favorite universities.”
After hundreds of years of slavery, followed by many more of legal and then de facto segregation and servitude for blacks, what does Alvin Chambliss see on the horizon?
He is quiet for a moment. “You know, this is a nation that is conceived in great ideas and egalitarian notions. Since 9/11, I’m afraid that our quest to be the great democracy of the world has taken a back seat to our quest to be the military might of the world. Yet I believe in America. We will come out of it, because ultimately we are a resilient people.”
Michael Wilkerson is coordinator for university arts initiatives in the IU Office of the Vice President for Research.